Ep 35 – Film Club – The Lost City of Z

Lost City of Z (2016). Directed by James Gray. Based on the 2009 book Lost city of Z by David Grann.

British soldier Percy Fawcett is contracted by the Royal Geographical Society to chart a river in the Amazon. During the journey he encounters remnants and stories of a lost city in the jungle. The experience leads him to embark on a series of expeditions to find what he has called The Lost City of Z.

You may want to watch the movie first and think about:

  • How is the Amazon depicted?
  • What does the movie make you think about the Amazon and the people who live there?
  • How does the movie make you feel about the Amazon and the people who live there?

Depiction of nature

  • Amazon is a backdrop
    • Not much time spent on details of the environment.
    • Does not give much sense of the biodiversity
  • The green desert
    • Uniformly, endlessly, green
    • Yellow hue throughout gives sense of unreality
    • No animals, fruit, or flowers
    • Despite being in a rainforest, the explorers are initially unable to find any food on their own
  • Amazon as a barrier 
    • Begins as wild, impenetrable
    • Becomes less hostile on Fawcett’s subsequent visits
  • England and tamed nature
    • Image of a rural idyll
    • English country garden echoes images of a Garden of Eden
    • Despite the beauty and calm of the landscape, Fawcett seems to yearn for the wildness of the Amazon

Relationship with Nature

  • Economic resource
    • Exploration is for economic value. Faucett maps river so rubber plantations can be established
  • Challenge to be conquered
    • Fawcett wants personal glory
    • European desire to push boundaries
  • Barrier to civilization
    • Begins as a “green hell”, inhospitable to ‘civilization’
    • Over the course of the film Fawcett starts to see amazon as a home for people and, he suspects, a civilization
    • Remains of city has since been found in the Xingu river basin, now called Kuhikugu

Relationship with amazonian peoples

  • Fawcett begins with British colonial views of Amazonian peoples’ as primitives/savages. His   views are depicted as changing in subsequent expeditions
    • Impressed by their fishing techniques and their ability to cultivate the jungle
    • Argued against interference in their lives, against violence towards them
    • In reality Fawcett was more conflicted about Amazon peoples
      • Theorized that ‘white indians’ from Europe had crossed the Atlantic and civilized them

Problematic points

Rethinking what is ‘civilized/civilization’

  • Film does little to challenge the western/Eurocentric view of ‘civilization’ as tied to material culture.
    • Fawcett uses pottery as marker of civilization worthy of exploration and ‘discovery’
    • What Fawcett recognizes as cultivation of the rainforest, is monoculture plantation agriculture.

Rethinking what is primitive

  • As fellow humans peoples of the Amazon have been on Earth just as long as anyone else, and have history just as long as any other.
  • ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ : Change is often in response to changing needs and/or environment
  • Behavioural and physical technologies can be effective though they may not look ‘modern’

Progression

  • Many of us are taught to think of history as progression or advancement
    • Tend to view practices and technology which appeared earlier in our history as being less advanced
  • Useful analogy is the concept of ‘living fossils’, plants and animals which appear to be largely unchanged from their fossil ancestors
    • Doesn’t mean there have been no changes
    • The physiology is just as suited to survival and reproduction today as it was for the now fossilized ancestor 

Thinking about present relationships with indigenous peoples

  • Still colonial/extractive
  • Cultural tourism can often still be colonial. Takes important practices and reduces them to an experience for personal enjoyment. Often separated from meanings, history, and significance for the people.
  • What has changed for these people to now require money from outsiders?

The role of women

  • Does little to challenge Fawcett’s exclusion of his wife from his expeditions
  • Contemporary with Marianne North, who went on similar expeditions on her own

GET IN TOUCH WITH US!

Music in this episode – Gradual Sunrise by David Hilowitz

Ep 33 – Teaching about habitats

What is a habitat?

Common definition is: A habitat is an animal’s home.

This is a good starting point but there are a few potential misconceptions.

  1. Plants also have habitats. So we should change ‘animal’ to living thing or organism.
  2. Home can be confusing because it might refer to the structure where an animal lives. (eg. nest, den, sett etc.) Usually mean something like forest, field, or desert. The difference is that we are usually talking about something on a larger scale, shared by more than one living thing.

A better definition to use might be: ‘The area where an organism lives’ or ‘Where an organism makes its home’. 

A bird makes its nest (its home) in a tree (microhabitat), or in a forest (habitat).

What makes a specific habitat?

Often the answer is: Temperature, rainfall, animals, plants 

It is tempting to teach about habitats through specific examples.

  • Deserts are hot, dry, and sandy, with cactuses and camels.
  • Rainforests are hot, and super wet.

These examples and simplifications are useful starting points, but can mask some of the amazing things that happen in these habitats. Deserts can be hot in the day, but also very cold at night. They are usually dry, but the rare rains can cause huge changes and explosions of life and activity.

Thinking on a bigger scale captures more of the picture: Climate patterns, the landscape, the community of organisms.

Climate is weather patterns over long periods. Daily and seasonal variations can be a very important part of how a specific habitat works. In order to survive livings things must be adapted to daily or seasonal cycles.

Plant communities, because they are rooted in place, have a significant impact on the character of a habitat. A forest is shaped by the dominant tree species. Birch forests have lighter canopies that oak forests, meaning different understorey plants.

Exploring the reason a plant community is dominant in an area is a good extension because it leads to the abiotic, or nonliving, elements of an area. Climate patterns, soil conditions, topography (how flat or steep an area is, what direction a slope faces).

What is important about habitats?

It’s where animals live. It’s where an animal gets their food, water, shelter, space.

This is all true. But we can take a more zoomed out view and then there are even more important reasons to understand habitats. Habitats are no isolated. They blend into and affect surrounding habitats.

  • Rain falling on a hillside will run into rivers. This carries bits of plants and soil with it. This can being nutrients to the river to feed plants, but it can also wash in human-made chemicals like pesticides.
  • Woodland on a hill channels rainwater into the soil. Reducing risk of flash floods, or rivers overflowing. (Science Daily)
  • Marshes or reedbeds act as big filters. Trapping mud and soil, and cleaning out chemical fertilizers before they can enter a river. (Annals of Botany)
  • Winds blowing over the sahara desert pick up dust and carry it around the world. This dust acts as fertilizer for algae in the oceans, and even the Amazon rainforest. (Science Daily)
  • Salmon runs bring nutrients from the ocean back into the continents. Which can be an important fertilizer for the thick forests along the Pacific coast of North America. (KQED – There’s something fishy about these trees… ; BMC Ecology)

What does this mean for teaching about habitats?

  • Habitats provide for the needs of living things
  • Habitats are interrelated
  • Living things are interdependent
  • Habitats will change over time, and this will have impacts on the living things within them

The themes running through these are about understanding the needs of living things (empathy), and understanding relationships (systems thinking). Relationships between living things and between living things and the non-living parts of the environment. 

Empathy is important for working well with others and making decisions in life which will have an impact beyond ourselves.

Systems thinking is where guidance from a teacher is particularly important. Teachers use their experience and knowledge to guide students in identifying connections. Understanding how parts of a system work together is important in making considered decisions and solving big problems with many many different stakeholders.

What might this look like in a lesson or classroom? 

  • Look at things from different perspectives and at different scales.
    • Focus on microhabitats, like the bottom of a pond, or a rotting log. Explore the details of the needs of the living things there and how they depend on the very specific qualities of that space.
    • Spending time building up food chains and then connecting them into food webs.
    • Explore different habitats and work together to look for possible connections between them.

What does this mean for outdoor education?

Take advantage of the opportunities presented by outdoor venues

  • Free exploration of a habitat provides physical experience with complexity of the space and helps develop physical intuition for its qualities.
  • Look for how parts of the habitat relate to others.
  • Investigate details which are more difficult in classroom settings such as the character and behaviour of animals.
  • Examine how habitat margins blend into each other

Get in touch with us!

Music in this episode – Gradual Sunrise by David Hilowitz

Ep 29 – “Murder hornets” and science news literacy

Using science news literacy skills to put click-bait in context. Discussion about recent stories of ‘murder hornets’ found in monitoring traps in the United States. Tips to avoid being distracted by emotionally charged language.

Articles discussed

Article 1‘Murder hornets’ trapped in US for first time as officials race to eradicate colonies before breeding season. First printed 2 August, 2020

Article 2‘Murder hornets’ have arrived in the U.S.—here’s what you should know. First printed 4 May, 2020

Article 3‘Murder hornet’ mania highlights dangers of fearing insects and spiders. First printed 3 August, 2020

Science News Literacy Skills

  1. Identifying loaded language

Is the language used emotionally charged? How does the language used make you feel about the subject?

  1. Evaluating justifications and accuracy

Is there good reason for using emotionally charged language? Is there enough evidence for conclusions drawn? How strong is the evidence cited in the article?

  1. Assessing content context

Does the article give you enough information to come to solid conclusions? Are risks put in terms you can understand? How many sources does the article draw from?

  1. Assessing media context

What do other new sources have to say about the story? Are they all drawing from the same source? Have journalists gotten the views of other experts in the field?

Article 1

Loaded language

Headline – ‘Murder hornets’ trapped in US for first time as officials race to eradicate colonies before breeding season

  • Uses very emotionally charged language which give a sense of fear and urgency

“slaughter phase” 

  • Sounds scary, and makes the behaviour seem excessive and senseless as in the phrase ‘senseless slaughter’

Accuracy

“murder hornets” due to their lethal sting to humans

  • Suggests that being stung is lethal. ‘Potentially’ or ‘in rare cases’ would more accurately reflect the data on bee stings 
  • No justification given for use of loaded terms like ‘murder’

Content context

  • No context given to risk from stings
  • Scientists’ concern about impact on wilds species is omitted

Media context

Article 2

Loaded language / Justification / Accuracy

Asian giant hornet – Most frequently used common name. Accurate description. The hornet’s population is focused in Asia and it is quite large.

Invasive – Has meaning for the scientific community, describing a species which has been introduced to an area and has a harmful impact. Also elicits emotional reaction from association with invading armies.

‘Slaughter phase’ is used but is given more context. The hornets kill their prey then move to a feeding phase where they consume it.

Content context

Gives more context to why people should care about the story. Danger to people and to bees.

Gives more context to danger to humans. Giving numbers for people who die from stings. However it does not give comparisons to more common risks (eg. traffic accidents), or events which pose comparable risk (eg. lightning strike).

Bee killing behaviour is given context in the hornet’s ecology, but no comparison is given to other hornets or wasps.

Global context is given. Describing why these hornets are a concern in North America. North American bees have not coevolved with the hornets and do not have defensive behaviours against them.

Media context

Precedes Independent article. Perhaps responding to press release about sightings of the hornet, which are later confirmed by specimens caught in traps. 

Article 3

Loaded language

“Murder hornet” is present in the headline. However it is followed by ‘mania’, which has the effect of moderating the impact of using ‘murder’ by suggesting that the fear generated by the term is not rational.

‘Mania’ implies widespread and irrational behaviour.

Justification / Accuracy

A section of the article describes the context which justifies their use of the term ‘mania’. 

Content context

Article focuses on public reactions to the earlier hornet story, putting it in the context of other alarming looking wasps. In this case Megachile pluto or Wallace’s giant bee, which has very large mandibles. Reporting on this bee species has elicited very negative reactions in the public despite it being harmless.

Hornets and risk are placed in context of other insect/invertebrate bites and stings, describing very low risk.

Anticipates the potential for the reader to be concerned about the danger of the hornets and places the reader’s reaction in the context of attitudes toward insects and spiders more generally. This has the effect of moderating the potential concern by encouraging the reader to pay attention to data on risk and consider the positive relationships other cultures have to invertebrates.

Numerous sources and researchers feature in the article with links to their research and websites.

Media context

Responds to prior reporting of the murder hornet story and the public response which was elicited.

Most, if not all of the content in this article could have been included in the earlier story to mitigate the negative impact. However it seems likely that pressure to publish a story early probably precluded getting the perspectives of the sources used in this later article.

More on hornets

Are ‘murder hornets’ really as scary as they sound? – Natural History Museum

What you need to know about ‘murder hornets’ – Science News for Students

Questions? Comments? 

Send them to: knowingnaturepodcast@gmail.com

Tweet us @kn_podcast

Intro/Outro music: Selfish by Derek Clegg. Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 US License

Ep 23 – Film Club – The Meg

Discussion about the 2018 film The Meg, directed by Jon Turtletaub.

You may want to watch the film first and think about:

  • What does the film make you feel about the shark?
  • What human impacts on the ocean are depicted?

What the film did well

  • Magical moments descending below the thermocline and seeing all the life and diversity.
  • Plausible design of underwater research station and vehicles.
  • Plenty of moments appreciating the size and power of megalodon sharks.
  • Moments highlighting modern ecological concerns.
    • Plastic pollution
    • Persecution and hunting of sharks for their fins
    • Larger animals getting caught on fishing lines
    • Moment could have come together to become a strong theme through the film, but fade away behind the action scenes and focus on killing the shark.
  • Representation
    • Very diverse crew of researchers.
    • While Suyin is great, the character is let down by needing to be rescued by Jonas in nearly every instance where she begins to be an active character.

What the film missed the mark on

  • Occasional implausible science
    • Size of the megalodons
    • Thermocline trapping warm water below a layer of cold
  • Health and safety
    • Rapid ascents from extreme depths can be dangerous or deadly for divers.
    • Standing on the back of boats that suddenly lurch into movement.
    • Dive equipment seemed to frequently require opening from the outside.
    • Letting your child wander around a construction/building site is not great.
  • Respect for sharks
    • Many missed opportunities to portray the megalodon as an animal and explore reasons for its behaviour. Instead the meg is depicted as a monster, constantly hungry and on the attack.
    • Researchers spend time taking selfies with the dead meg. Missed opportunity to be more thoughtful with the moment and consider what could have  been learned from a live megalodon.
    • Sharks really suffered after the Jaws films, and a lot of work has been done to try and rehabilitate their image. This film occasionally takes steps in this direction, but these are ultimately lost in the plot.

Recommendations

Shark Lady: The Daring Tale of How Eugenie Clark Dove Into History

Nautilus live – live streams from marine exploration rovers.

James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge (2014)

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

Send in your questions and comments:

Email: knowingnaturepodcast@gmail.com

Twitter: @kn_podcast

Intro/Outro music: Selfish by Derek Clegg. Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 US License

Ep 22- Making the most of ponds

Ponds have huge environmental and wildlife value. They are also an excellent way to have encounters with wildlife.

Tips for building a pond

Size is not critical for wildlife pond, but bigger is better

  • Larger ponds are more stable. Changes in temperature, oxygen etc. will happen more gradually.
  • More places for wildlife to hide.

Depth can be important in places which get particularly cold in winter.

  • Check locally, 50cm is often more than enough to prevent freezing top-bottom which would affect fish and larger wildlife

Try to have the pond part shaded.

  • Reduces temperature swings
  • Reduce growth of algae which can quickly take over in new ponds
  • Not directly under a tree
    • Fallen leaves can add too many nutrients and trigger blooms of algae. 
    • Decay can draw lots of oxygen from water which can affect larger animals.

In-ground vs raised

  • Raised ponds are more accessible
  • Depending on height of edge can be used even by very young children
    • ~50cm is a good minimum height
  • Use study border, not just any raised bed.
    • Strong enough to sit on
    • Wide enough rim to be able to put specimen trays and charts.
  • In-ground ponds are more natural looking
    • Can be bigger
    • Easier to host wider range of wildlife, can be accessed by amphibians
      • Raised pond can be accessed by amphibians if they are provided a planted bank up one edge of the pond.
    • Access area needs to be considered
      • Planted banks are not good. Plants trampled, becomes muddy,  can become slippery
      • Gravel banks better, less messy, less slippery for people
        • Gravel will work its way into the pond
      • Mix of gravels, larger, flat rocks, even better
        • Kids will tend to stand on the larger flat stones
          • More stable, less gravel slippage into the pond
          • Choose rough large stones for more grip
      • Decking probably provides best access
        • If extended into the pond can allow access to deeper areas 
        • Kids won’t trample plants or get muddy
        • Less likely to become slippery
        • Decking should be only slightly higher than the maximum height of pond

Safety

Data from Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents

  • Risk of drowning in ponds is extremely low
  • Overall garden ponds are as risky as bathtubs
  • Most at risk for ponds were 1 and 2 year olds

Supervision of very young children is the best safety precaution

  • Spend time with young children around ponds supporting development of motor skills and demonstrating how to evaluate risk

Design your pond to minimize risk. – Most of the risk from bodies of water come from being very deep as can be the case in lakes and reservoirs, or having very fast flow as a river with spring melt.

  • Shallow enough that a child can stand up and walk out if they fall in will vastly reduce risks
  • Sloped edges mean you step into shallow water rather than fall into deeper water
  • Coarse or large gravel on the bottom will not have the sticky effect of soil-like substrates

Fencing – In the UK there is no requirement to fence off a pond. Check your local regulations.

  • Fencing can produce its own hazards
    • Standing on railing could mean kids fall from a higher height
    • Fences can prevent help from reaching someone who has fallen in or prevent them from easily getting out
    • Can create false sense of security (Sitting on fence is riskier than sitting on the deck)
  • Mesh coverings/grates
    • Can produce own hazards
      • Falling onto the grate could cause injury
      • Damaged grating or mesh could become risk for trapping feet/fingers
      • False sense of security, encouraging riskier behaviour such as walking on the grating
    • Makes using pond more difficult, less likely to actually use it at all

Diseases – Infections can occur from contact with untreated water as in a wildlife pond. Practice good hygiene and risk is extremely low.

  • Apply waterproof plasters/bandages to open wounds on hands
  • Wash hands with soap and water after using the pond
  • Weil’s disease is the most commonly cited zoonotic risk in the UK, bacterial infection transmitted by rat urine, but 1996-2006 never more than 60 cases in a year so risk is extremely low. (Risk is greater in tropical or subtropical areas)

Mosquitos

  • Addition of a fountain or pump to provide water circulation will reduce mosquito breeding
  • Add fish

Plants and wildlife

  • Most insects and wildlife will arrive quite quickly on their own
  • Small native freshwater fish can be added a few months after first setting up a pond.
    • If your pond is well designed, and not overstocked, fish will not eat everything. Make sure you have planted submerged plants with lots of leaves. These are often sold as oxygenating plants.
    • You should not need to feed the fish. Doing so will add significant nutrients to the pond and produce algal grown and foul smells from more fish waste than the invertebrates can handle.
  • Frogs and newts will arrive on their own if your area is suitable for them
    • If your pond is in the ground, ensure some areas of the margin are planted and left undisturbed. This will allow wildlife quiet corridors to access the pond and to take shelter when kids are investigating the area
    • Do not import frogs from other ponds. This can spread diseases. 
    • If amphibians do not arrive on their own the surrounding area is probably not suitable for them, and young frogs will likely not survive after leaving the pond.

Topics to start with

Habitats – Involve kids in the design process. All the components of the habitat, and what conditions animals and plants need to thrive.

Microhabitats – Pond invertebrates are often strongly associated with particular areas of a pond. Well orchestrated pond dips can yield strong differences between different areas.

Classification – Can be more difficult than using terrestrial habitats. Pond invertebrates tend to be much smaller, making it more difficult to pick out key characteristics. Most common pond invertebrates are young insects.

Measuring and mapping – Larger in-ground ponds with organic shapes will require many measurements around the perimeter to create accurate maps. Established ponds may be visible from satellite or aerial footage. 

  • Discuss pros and cons of working manually vs aerial imagery
    • Vegetation getting in the way
    • Get better feel for conditions around the pond mapping in-person
    • What conditions can be identified from aerial images? What requires in-person investigation?

Art – Ponds often have soft edges because of the planting, and lend themselves to pastels or watercolours. 

  • Landscapes, impressionism
  • Pond plants are also often very vigorous and recover well from being picked. Collected material can be used as references for portraits of plants and their parts
  • Botanical illustration, technical drawing

Teaching tips

  • Familiarity will help a lot in figuring out if your pond will be suitable for a topic. Do your own pond dip and see what is most common.
  • If the groups you work with do not regularly use a pond, allowing 5 minutes to explore and be excited, within reason, helps get that energy out
  • If classes tend not to use ponds or find live creatures often, structured collection from specific microhabitats can be very difficult to orchestrate.
    • Those who collect from the top of the pond in open water tend not to find much and can be disappointed.
  • If going for structured collection, direct kids to ‘high yield’ areas 
    • Plants, bottom of pond, whole water column
  • Close observation in containers can yield a lot of good information
    • Observed behaviour in containers tends to be similar behaviour to that would be seen in the habitat. 
    • Allows for thinking about microhabitats without needing to limit kids to collecting from small areas
      • Animals which cling to plants in the containers tend cling to plants in the pond
      • Animals which remain at the bottom of a container tend to be bottom dwelling in the pond
  • Reserve highly structured surveying for older students or groups which work with live creatures more frequently
    • Excitement will need to come from curiosity to learn details about the habitat
    • If the group is not used to working in natural spaces may be more beneficial and productive to plan for them to be doing more freeform exploration

Questions or comments?

Email : knowingnaturepodcast@gmail.com

Twitter: @kn_podcast

Intro/Outro music: Selfish by Derek Clegg. Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 US License